Friday, 3 October 2014

Where's Them Frikkin' Lazar Beams??

It's the evening of the 25th August, 2013.  Somewhere in the red heart of Lisboa, Benfica manager Jorge Jesus can't sit for fear that his nerves will betray his confidence. His nerves are gone. The jacket's off. No tie or fashion bulletin scarf around his neck. Even the gum's being chewed with long teeth. He's feeling the pressure of the white handkerchiefs threatening to reveal themselves past the pockets of the watching Benfiquista faithful.

It's 0-1 to Gil Vicente. At home. 7 days after a demoralising opening day defeat in Madeira to Maritimo.  And his principal creators Gaitan and Salvio, bereft of form, now reside behind him on an anxious Benfica bench. It was just 2 minutes later that Viana scored the opener.

80 minutes. 0-1.
85 minutes. 0-1.
90 minutes. 0-1. Still.

This wasn't supposed to happen.
They weren't supposed to have a horrid May where a treble went up in smoke at the hands of a presumptuous display in Estoril, and being cut at the knees against Porto, Chelsea and Guimaraes.
They definitely weren't supposed to start the new season like this. No big departures? Additions of intriguing talent like Filip Djuricic and Miralem Sulejmani? A stronger team, surely! Not one that loses at home to Gil Vicente??

92 minutes, Wait. What!? Number 50's just run on a glorious defence splitting pass into the box. And scored!?  An intelligent diagonal run vs. static centre backs, and a lovely finish with his right!
1 minute later, Benfica have won through another late goal, this time from main striker Lima. 2-1 win. Snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Jorge Jesus breathes. And this number 50 kid... who the hell is he?

At the time we didn't know. Well, ok, Very few did know.  Very few understood the background of one of Serbia's most exciting young technical prospects, already rumoured to have been scouted by Chelsea while at Partizan Belgrade.

But that changed a week later.

After all, that was no ordinary Sporting team. No. This was not the Sporting of old. It had purpose. A good coach with great ideas in Leonardo Jardim. And a trio of midfielders growing in stature in William Carvalho, Adrien Silva and Andre Martins.  They were great value for their 1-0 lead after 10 minutes, even if it was at home.

But wait. Did that Serbian kid just replace the first choice Benfica winger Salvio due to injury?  And did that same Serbian punk just breeze past the Sporting midfield and inbetween the left back and centre back to calmly slot past Patricio for a critical equaliser to ultimately frame him as a temporary cult derby hero?  The ball just stuck to his feet! What the hell??

Many didn't know his name before.
They did now.
Lazar Markovic.

Lazar produced some key moments in the big games against Porto and Sporting.
(Image source -


It's the evening of the 25th August 2014. 60 minutes into what was supposed to be a close encounter between 2 title rivals from the previous season, the world has changed considerably for Lazar Markovic. He's already put the domestic treble and the disappointing Europa League final with Benfica behind him.  And the 7 goals he scored. And the assists he created, including a memorable one for Rodrigo against title rivals Porto.

Instead, this time he's replacing Philippe Coutinho, walking onto the pitch in Liverpool red, and facing an opponent the quality of which he's never faced. It's not his fault, of course. For all of their efforts, Benfica's most illustrious opponents in season 2013/14 were PSG and Juventus. Neither play in the gruelling physicality and tempo of the Premier League.

As a Benfica and Liverpool fan, I was asked (and still do get asked) several times about Lazar. His best qualities. His best position. His promise. And more recently - his price tag.

My answers have always been based on what I saw, of course. And call me biased, but there's not exactly a poor track record with certain players from Portuguese football, expensive as they normally are. His impact with Benfica had been fantastic. I had little reason to think he couldn't replicate it given time and opportunity.

After the cameo against Man City came Spurs. Then suddenly injuries to key players forced him into the spotlight against Villa, West Ham, Middlesborough, Everton and Basel.  It's not a great sample - but football is merciless to those who flatter to deceive.

And Markovic has done just that.


The main contributing factor though - is not his fault at all. It's the precedent set in recent years in Portuguese football, where Porto and Benfica have managed to produce considerable transfer cash cows (even with the issues of third party ownership) through the sale of talent too great to contain on Portuguese shores like Angel Di Maria, Axel Witsel, Hulk, Joao Moutinho and Nemanja Matic.

But Markovic has a different challenge. Yes, he illustrated his talent in Portugal. And yes, before he even began think about taking in Portuguese customs, he was already considered a special talent while at Partizan Belgrade.

It was widely considered that Chelsea were going to be the main front-runners for his signature (truth be told, that may still be the case one day).  I was convinced of this. And I constantly iterated this time and time again. Just like Nemanja Matic before him, he was inevitably London bound.

But then - he wasn't.
20m reasons later, did I discover that Liverpool had acquired him. And with my two hats, I immediately posed the 2 sides of the coin.
For Benfica - an inevitable departure, perhaps a season earlier than expected, or hoped. The destination? Irrelevant. The full price was paid - and that's all that Luis Filipe Vieira wanted, of course.

But for Liverpool? 20m for a 20 year old?

It's no coincidence that people make the comparisons now between Lazar and Stewart Downing.  I'm awaiting the comparison with Andy Carroll, because in a strange way, that may well be the most appropriate.

Did Andy want to leave Newcastle? Likely not. Did they want the cash offered? Very much so.
Did Lazar farm himself out for sale? I doubt he cared either way. Did Benfica want the cash offered? You know the answer.

The price is the same noose hanging around the neck of any player who's development, skills and assimilation into a new league, team or challenge are perceived not to be in sync with their transfer fee.  It's the reason Liverpool fans doubted Jordan Henderson initially (well, actually, some still do).  It's the reason Aquilani's flop hurt that much more.  Or Carroll and Downing, for that matter.


And of course, with the price and the failure to produce the initial reassuring signs of a good investment come the criticism. The doubt. The hate. The bestial remarks on instagram posts and Twitter comparing Lazar's abilities to that of a disabled primate (or something like that, anyway).

Yet... I struggle to recall many players with big price tags who didn't have a certain pedigree already developed behind them.  A price brings with it expectations and often, the best players dispel the nonsensical notions of "time needed to settle in" when their prices are considerably high. Mata for Chelsea or Man United. Bale to Real Madrid. Silva, or Aguero for Man City. Di Maria for Man United. Fabregas, or Costa, or even Matic for Chelsea.

That's not to say it always works like that, of course. Ozil didn't hit the ground running at Arsenal. Lamela may yet still flop completely at Spurs. Many Liverpool fans are now amenting Mario Balotelli, be it with pleas of patience or condemnation.  Adam Lallana's largest critics have a larger problem with his price tag than Adam's abilities to contribute to the team.

But a 20 year old? A kid? Because that IS what he is, of course.

There are comparisons to Sterling. And those comparisons aren't unfounded given that they are similar players in style and approach. But Sterling has a few things that Markovic doesn't have. Sterling has experience of the league, the academy, the manager's approach. The experience of team-mates around him. And most of all, the experience of having been on the fringes of the team for the sake of patience, development and above all, confidence.  A far cry from the calls suggesting to loan him after appearing as a right back in some of Rodgers' early tactical shifts in 2013-14.

Some of that may be irrelevant if you're in your mid 20s. But a kid?

Ironically, you could (theoretically) buy Sterling now for 20m and suggest that he not only represents great value for the future - but also a fantastic talent at the moment in his own right. The problem with this comparison is simple. Sterling has developed into a magnificent world class player at this tender age.  But Markovic hasn't been afforded that opportunity, and may not at Liverpool, because the price will always betray any performance he produces, be it good ("about time he justified his price!" or bad ("waste of money!").

The reality is this. Very seldom are large outlays of cash made for players this young.  It is becoming more common as teams become more determined to maximize the return on key young prospects, but there's a handful of teams that sell (or pay) top dollar for potential.  And even I'm not too hubristic to admit that Liverpool paid a premium for potential in his transfer.


However, all that being said, I am effectively a Markovic apologist, so let me try my rhetoric to suggest a notion which, while not wholly satisfying to absolve the Serbian of his role in his poor start at Liverpool, does nonetheless pose a compelling argument to defend the lad (at least, I think so).

Lazar was a key ingredient in Benfica's league and domestic cup treble in 2013/14.
(Image source -

At Benfica, his introduction into the team played to a lot of good factors. A team facing opponents of a lower overall quality, technical ability and physicality compared to Liverpool. A team that also finished 2nd in their respective competition, and ironically with even higher expectations set up on it, but a team with an established identity.  No loss of key players (Matic would only make his exit in January 2014 and by that point, the team already had a reasonable alternative to him in Ljubomir Fejsa).  No dramatic introduction of several new faces, including a near total overhaul of the back 4. In fact, the only initial change in that Benfica team other than Markovic himself was a new left back in Guilherme Siqueira.

Liverpool are in a significantly different place. They have a far more difficult league to navigate, married with the ludicrous expectations of some to challenge for large titles outright.  They have changed 3 of the back 4, retaining the only weak link in that setup (Skrtel). They've exacerbated the midfield issues with bizarre tactical applications that bind Henderson to Gerrard in a Hodgson-esque 2-man configuration which doesn't support the attack and clearly is still ineffective in protecting the defence.

Often Liverpool attack with isolation - 3 vs a swarm of defenders resting deep, in stark contrast to last season's quick attacking transitions and excellent off ball movement and rotation of the front 3, supported with 2 fullbacks and 2 central midfielders to allow ball retention, and management and creation of space.

It's Liverpool's previous season's attacking style that marries why I believe Liverpool bought Lazar, because Benfica operated very much in a similar manner, with the team's shape largely a fluid 343 in attack. And whether he played with mobile fowards like Rodrigo and Lima, or a more static big centre forward like Oscar Cardozo, Markovic didn't struggle to create or capitalise on space which he specifically needs to shine.

In short - Markovic hasn't been employed enough in the manner which plays to his strengths, and he's playing a role alien to him in a team that isn't functioning on any cylinders at times.  If people believe they've not seen anything of him to illustrate any promise or sign to justify his purchase, I would agree, albeit with a heavy heart.  If he's being reduced to taking down high diagonal balls from deep from Gerrard, and being expected to run to the corner flag, and put in a cross for the big man in the middle - most people who have seen him play will tell you he will always look worse than Stewart Downing if that's what his role is.


Lazar missed the Europa League final after being mistakenly assumed to have participated in a touchline brawl.
(Image source -

Lazar is not a traditional winger.  He's a wide forward, whose instinct when receiving the ball in wide positions (or centrally, for that matter) with space is to see the pitch in front of him, run at speed at defenders, with good off-ball movement around him to drag defenders out of position.  That, combined with his excellent touches and technique (and a bit of audacity), tends to the produce the real magic and brilliance that set Benfiquista hearts alive last season.  It's that magic that made him a critical part of a team that lost a handful of times last season, conquering the domestic competitions threefold.  It stands to reason that had it not been for a bizarre suspension from a brawl in the semifinal against Juventus, he could have made the difference in a Benfica side strapped of many of its creative resources against Sevilla in the Europa League final.

That's why ironically, my condemnation of his poor start doesn't make allowance for some of the more positive and optimistic Liverpool fans who've said they've "noticed his pace", or said things like "he looked decent against City", and "made some nice touches".

The Markovic I know and expect hasn't arrived at Anfield.  I last saw him celebrating a third trophy win in Benfica red.

I also don't believe his poor form is due only to him - there are issues larger than him affecting the team at present. But fundamentally, I hope for his sake, he is afforded the time to develop, to integrate to shine. I believe Liverpool could have a very special talent if that is the case.

But if that doesn't happen...he may become someone else's diamond to polish. And he is a diamond, of that I have little doubt.

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